Archive for February 2009

Game Design: Paladins Are (Not) MAD

My experience on the official Wizards forums has dwindled over the past eight or so years mostly due to the fact that more often than not its akin to wading into a mire from which you can occasionally procure valuable gems of Wisdom (oh ho, did you see what I did there?).

I do go there, to be sure, but mostly to see if someone found some odd tidbit that I overlooked (like the character sheets from D&DXP) or to dredge up new topics for this blog. Its common practice to decry that anything and everything in D&D sucks given the right person and time, and even with the new edition there isn't any shortage of complaints.

Paladins are touted as underpowered, or rather being dependent on too many ability scores to be useful. This misconception is spread because the paladin uses either Strength or Charisma for her attack powers. Wisdom serves a secondary purpose, which makes sense, and Constitution rounds things out by giving her as they say, "hit points out the ass". We can look at several other classes to easily determine that the paladin isn't alone in this regard: the ranger can key off of Strength or Dexterity depending on your style, and the warlock demands Constitution, Charisma, or both in the case of the star pact.

However, even classes with a single attack stat aren't immune from this trend. The fighter likes a high Strength, but can get additional benefits from Dexterity or Constitution depending on her weapon of choice. She also likes a good Wisdom to take certain feats and to make opportunity attacks more reliable. The difference is that in order to get the really good weapon feats, you want to have your secondary stat at 17 to 19. Add to the fact that the fighter wants a Constitution that is as good if not better than the paladin (since she is easier to hit), and you have a harder time meeting all the prerequisites.

I think that most, if not all of these complaints originate from people who are too busy analyzing the game to actually play it and see how it all works out. Examples are cultivated in a vacuum, deprived of outside input that might allow them to properly mature and grow. I have a fairly new player in Adrian's group that is playing a Charisma-oriented warforged paladin, and is having a blast with it. She's completely effective in combat when she remembers to use divine challenge: just don't ask her to attempt basic melee attacks (Str 12).

Others focus on the paladin class features, claiming that the paladin just isn't as sticky as other defenders, which tells me they probably haven't seen the swordmage. Fighters get to mark anything they attack, and wardens can mark everything next to them, which tells me that soon you'll get complaints about power creep and that the fighter sucks cause she isnt as sticky as the warden. The trend I've noticed is that a fighter often gets to dole out a single attack per round, so in most cases she also gets only a single mark. While this technically makes the fighter stickier than the paladin, the paladin can do other things that help even the playing field in terms of cool factor: healing as a minor action, better starting armor proficiencies, an extra healing surge, and an encounter power that allows a free save or extra damage. You cant just directly compare and contrast classes.

The obvious solution is that if you want a paladin, don't try to spread yourself out too thin. Set one stat at 16 (as its the magic number) and then apply the rest as you see fit. I don't expect clerics to try and max out Strength and Wisdom at the same time, so why expect the same from paladins? Pick one and roll with it, or better yet throw hardcore optimization out the window and focus on making a character that you will actually enjoy. Its easy to hit up the Character Optimization thread to make a super-powered character with all the numbers and none of the personality. Its more difficult to make a memorable character.
February 28, 2009
Posted by David Guyll

Blue Dragon Plus Widget

Posted by David Guyll

Review: Blue Dragon Plus

Blue Dragon Plus apparently takes place one year after the events of the first game, which a quick perusal of Wikipedia reveals to be predictably titled Blue Dragon sans the Plus, released on the Xbox 360 a couple years back. Not owning a Xbox of any sort, it explains how it fell pretty far under my radar. The game provides the uninitiated with a few lines of background text before showing off some nicely done FMV scenes of your party and what looks like the Transformer cube, after which it pitches you head first into combat. As a huge fan of games like God of War, I can respect a game that tries to get to the point. The downside is that combat in BDP is fairly wonky when it comes down to selecting my own units, selecting an enemy, and movement (ie, the basics).

Selecting units is done via four different methods. The obvious is that you just peck the desired unit that you want to relay commands to, and for the most part it works out great unless he is lost in a sprite mosh pit. The second involves you randomly cycling through your allies like a malicious roulette wheel, and if you’re pounding your stylus frantically trying to get the right one it’s easy to skip past them and have to repeat the process all over again. By far the best one is the lasso technique since it actually pauses the battle and gives you a chance to consider your options. Of course if you’re going for expediency over tactics, you can just use Select All and mob the nearest opponent, which brings me to my next gripe: actual combat.

Combat doesn’t seem very tactical or inspiring at all, which is a problem since the game consists mostly of combat. In the six or so hours I played it I just used Select All and made my party mob one monster at a time before moving onto the next creature. If they couldn’t reach it, it wasn’t a problem because they would often auto-attack the nearest monster that blundered into their path. Mostly I was just there to have them down medicine when necessary, and use skills when I got bored.

Characters usually auto-attack monsters, which is a big plus when it works because the selection method makes it difficult to perform micromanaging duties inherent to a real-time game. Of course it’s a real drag when they are standing right next to a monster and decide to ignore it. The hardest part is getting your little pixilated warriors into the fray. Movement is slow and the pathing often runs from terrible to impossible, as they will often walk back and forth between a short area before finally taking the hint and getting their butts into the thick of things.

I’m not sure how to compare this to other games on the DS having never used one before. It’s your basic text-book RPG and has all the tried and true elements that make for an average RPG, which makes sense because it feels very average. There’s a plot to be sure, connected by a series of combat challenges that reward you with loot, levels, and exposition, but not anything particularly innovative or interesting to me. The animations are nice and the out-of-combat music is great (you cant go wrong with Nobuo composing your soundtrack), but since a game is defined by how it plays, its not enough to keep me interested for very long.

I just think that this really isn’t the game for me. In a RPG with an emphasis on tactical elements, I'd like to be able to utilize more tactical play. This is easy to pull off in turn based games, but many other real-time games let you modify a character with a kind of combat behavior, such as by using lots of magical attacks and being stingy with the curative items. The pathing makes it hard to resign casters to the back and be effective, especially since their magic has an extremely short range that is centered on them. If I want to make Klake use a fire attack, she has to be in the thick of combat getting the hp beat out of her.

If you aren't too interested in the combat then you can still fall back to the actual story part of the game, and though I'm not too far in it's your standard fare of bad guy threatening the cube world and the heroes are going to stop him (again following RPG textbook dogma). I’ve heard from others that BDP is very similar in play and execution to Heroes of Mana and Final Fantaxy XII: Revenant Wings, and having never actually played them I’ll have to take their word on recommending this game if you liked the other two.

Posted by David Guyll

Cease & Desist Letters From Wizards

Red Jason voiced some concern awhile back about some cease & desist letters that Wizards of the Coast was issuing against various sites. This naturally gave him cause for worry, mostly about the fact that the banner for this blog is a cropped image of the Dungeon Master's Guide. He didnt want to attract any negative flak from them, and thats something I can completely understand.

Having actually read about the sites that got the axe, I think that Wizards was right in what they did. Think about it, both sites were fronting complete stats for each power in the Player's Handbook. Thats a lot of content that amounts to much more than part of a single image. Some people are clamoring for a fansite kit, afraid that Wizards is going to tell them to knock if off if they do fan art of various D&D races or monsters, while others are afraid that their use of official D&D art is going to earn them a swift kick in the ass.

I think both sides are overreacting, especially when you stop for a moment and actually get the facts: those sites were making a large portion of the books freely available (and one of them charged you for storage space if you wanted to save your sheet to a database). I wonder what the owner's of these sites thought was going to happen. If I slap up pdfs that contain large portions of any book, I would fully expect them to crack down on me.
This has lead supporters of these sites to make claims that Wizards of the Coast is just trying to eliminate the competition, nevermind the fact that what the offenders were doing essentially amounts to theft.

I think that Wizards is one of the more lenient companies out there, considering that some like Palladium tend to go ape when you mention their games or numerous "copyrights" in any context at all. I'm very confident that they arent going to demand that I remove the picture of my tiefling warlord, or slap us on the wrists for cropping their art.
February 27, 2009
Posted by David Guyll

DDI: March Calendar

The March calendar is up, and the content looks nice.

Ever since they dropped a third of the bard and summoning magic into one of the Ampersand columns, I've been looking forward to those.

The PA/PvP podcasts are getting rolled out on the same day Dungeon gets updating, so now I have a reason to look forward to those.

Sharns are apparently getting an ecology article, which has reminded me to figure out a way to include them in my non-Forgotten Realms campaign.

Not sure what The Art of the Kill is all about, but my guess is assassin-themed exploits. Same goes with the Bestiary article. They should really put a name with that so we have an idea of what to expect.

I'm interested in the Design & Development and Party Building 101 articles, but then I'm a sucker for design content.

Also, there is a playtest for Martial Power 2 coming out at the end of the month.

Its shaping up to be a good month, especially since the term ends about the time PH2 comes out.
Posted by David Guyll

Game Design: PCs, NPCs, and Skills

One of the oft-touted "flaws" of 4th Edition is that there are separate rules for creating players and monsters, where 3rd Edition had a more cohesive set of rules that was mostly similar. Of course, prior editions had rules that amounted to basically "make it up yourself", but we'll just ignore that tiny little fact.

In 3rd Edition (Revised) making a monster had you start by picking a creature type, which provided you with a Hit Die. Hit Dice were specific-sided polyhedrals that carried other mechanics with them: an attack bonus, save progression, and skill points. If you wanted to make an undead monster, it had a "poor" attack progression, which meant that for every two Hit Dice it got a +1 to attack rolls. All of its saving throws except for Will sucked, but at least it got to use a d12, right?

From a design standpoint, this meant that to create a huge "beater" type monster you had to really frontload the Hit Dice and/or give it a massive Strength score to compensate for its piss poor attack rolls. As a DM you generally knew your party, and I recall doing this when I was running Age of Worms where I had to strike a very, VERY fine balance between HD and Strength, because if the Strength was too high it could easily kill one player, but if it had too many Hit Dice its hit points would be insane.

Add to the heap that Armor Class was largely whatever-you-wanted-to-use and its a mathematical nightmare, especially when you consider that not all Hit Dice were equal. While undead was particularly crappy, the Hit Dice for a dragon was supreme: +1 to attack per HD, best saves, massive skill points. Having to juggle all these things explains the reason why many monsters had glass jaws or ended up being far too powerful for what their Challenge Rating would suggest.

As a D&D junky, much of the time I had some fun doing this type of stuff. At first. Eventually, the joy waned and it started to get tedious as I starting making more and more original content. NPCs became a chore, and much of the time I just applied a level and class next to their names and committed some basic (and often incorrect) math to the label.

"George the blacksmith? He's probably a level 2 expert, not that anyone is going to attack him, but if they did he probably has +4 to hit with a big-ass hammer and deals 1d8 + 3 damage. Hit points? Feh, I'll wing it when the time comes."

Dont get me started on spellcasting NPCs: I generally panned out the best spells and just told the rest to sod off.

Now monster creation is much more streamlined and focuses more on what you will actually use as opposed to the futile attempt at complete world immersion, which I doubt any RPG has successfully achieved. You pick a role, a level, and then tack on abilities that you want your monster to use and the rest literally writes itself after referencing some formulas in the Dungeon Master's Guide. Its a lot like making a normal character, just without the feats.
What this means is that the end result is essentially the same, just without nearly as many quirks and the road is less convoluted.

Granted, some rules are a bit obscure: I know more than one person has overlooked the little footnote that says something to the effect of "area attacks are -2 to hit", but its not exactly alchemy and after awhile you will probably come to memorize most of the formulas.

On the topic of doling out powers, one poster on the message boards complains that you cannot learn maneuvers that some monsters have. The one that kept cropping up was the bugbear strangler's choke attack. I have to wonder just how many times anyone has bothered to attempt anything like these, even in 3rd Edition where you technically could make the attempt, but it was often more effective to simply make an attack (even at the -4 penalty to inflict nonlethal damage). Even if you did bother to climb up a feat tree to be able to grab someone and start strangling them, I have no idea why you would waste your feats in such a manner seeing as most monsters are stronger, bigger, and have more Hit Dice than you do, which most certainly outweighs any kind of trivial advantage all your shiny feats will grant you.

Its a lot like monks having Improved Grab: sure you ignore the -4 penalty but that doesnt amount to much if the monster has a grapple modifier 10 points higher than yours after the fact.

However, his complaint isn't so much efficacy as transparency, but I think its a matter of him looking at the rules and finding out that nothing there explicitly allows it as opposed to his character not making the attempt when there are many more effective actions to take. 4th Edition has focused on making a much more playable and fun game, a goal that they have succeeded at. Whether the sacrifice was worth it or not depends on your group, but I suspect that Wizards knew what was up while they were making the choice.

That being said, I don't think that 3rd Edition was a system that encouraged you to do whatever you want. There are rules for many things, but not all, and many of the smaller subsystems had so many flaws that its more like the mechanics were just teasing you about things that you could theoretically perform if you didn't mind horribly crippling your character in some fashion and you lived in a perfect world. Things like grappling, buying a castle, or taking ranks in any Craft skill, and on that note...

The Craft/Profession skills in 3rd Edition never did make sense and seemed to exist mostly to justify in a mechanical sense how NPCs can perform their basic functions such as farming or bartending. Few, if anyone, in my games ever bothered with them because we were usually out and about actually adventuring. D&D is an action-adventure role-playing game, not some kind of twiddly "reality simulator".

You can argue role-playing this-and-that, but then you probably dont know what "role-playing" actually means. Players might take ranks in those skills to try and pretend that they are a cut above the other gamers, but in the end if you DM doesnt go out of her way to create situations where you can use those extremely narrow skills then you've just wasted ranks.

In one of the Pathfinder modules it was mentioned that there was a clue that a character with Profession (butcher) could figure out, which sounds creative but isnt when you consider that you cannot make Profession checks untrained and butcher is one of many professions that a character could take. You would have to heavily imply if not outright tell your group that someone should take that for anyone to have it in the first place (thats not even considering what the DC is, as a player might take a handful of ranks in it and be done).

Having rules for those things gave the implication that to have a character that grew up as a farmer that you need to have Profession (farming). To me that just restricts character potential, especially considering how skill DCs worked in 3rd Edition and that most classes got crap for skill points. It was often a toss up between a skill that would be very useful to being able to justify your character's history.
Posted by David Guyll

Gamer's Library: Blackstaff Tower

Now that much of the contention has passed regarding the new 4th Edition version of the Forgotten Realms, I really feel that, for those who may have stayed away from checking out the Realms ala 1479 DR, now is a great time to take a fresh look at the new setting.

I will state my personal piece - when I first heard about the shaking up of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting - the Spellplague, that the timeline was being pushed a century ahead etc., - the information was met with an anticipation induced smile. I was happy to see a sweeping-off-the-table of the many high level npc's, that was one of the factors that turned me off to FR and drew me to the fresh, young setting of Eberron. I think Antioch, along with many many others, can relate to the attempt at running Forgotten Realms games and having players constantly interjecting with things like, "That river isn't supposed to be there," or "That inn is in Neverwinter not Silverymoon." - Well, you get the point. After so many years the Realms basically became just plain overused, and overused means boring.

But why bother completely up-ending a setting that so many people have come to love for decades and just release something completely new? Love for the Forgotten Realms, that's why. Wizards of the Coast could have easily let the FR game setting fall by the wayside and into the hands of a core group of fans while still making a killing from Salvatore novels. In my opinion they didn't want to see that happen, they (and many of us) knew that Toril had many more stories to tell - a new, fresh epoch was what was needed to make that happen - even if it took an event as big as the Spellplague to usher it in.

As the novel has long been the companion to the core game, it is still, gladly, the case today. Enter the new Ed Greenwood Presents Waterdeep series, and it's first installment: Blackstaff Tower. This series is based on the 4E incarnation of what is probably the most famous, (or infamous depending who you ask) grand city in probably all of fantasy (excluding maybe Lankhmar) - Waterdeep. Each book in the series is set to explore a different section of the new Waterdeep.

I picked up Blackstaff Tower the week it came out back in September and plowed through it pretty quick, hungry to soak in all of the new sights and sounds of a city I have come to love myself over the years. While I do think it really helps to have previously read Steven E. Schend's Blackstaff before picking this one up, it's not completely necessary. But it does help. Quite a bit.

Overall the plot is pretty simple - BBEG wants to usurp the power of the Blackstaff, for reasons not altogether evil in his mind, killing the current Blackstaff of Waterdeep, Samark. (Yes, Khelben is dead) And in doing so he leaves the young, foreign, exotic lover of Samark, Vajra Safahr true heir to the Blackstaff. This is where your typical, young band of adventurers comes into play. However Schend's descriptive style of writing really brings these characters to life. You really feel as if your running through the back alleys from the city watch alongside the young upstart Renear, or trudging through the sewers with beautiful Laraelra and the mountainous barbarian Meloon.

In the end this group of friends must come together and yet also face their innermost selves in order to protect their friend Vajra, and help her obtain the Blackstaff. Once the introductions are over and the plot gets going, this book gets pretty fast paced. Throw in a more than interesting battle at the end and you've got your self a great, albeit somewhat typical at times, adventure in a new yet familiar setting.

Pick this one up if you haven't already, especially if you want a taste of the new Forgotten Realms.
February 26, 2009
Posted by David Guyll

Character Builder...Glitch(?)

Last night Adrian came over and after a few minutes of flipping through Dungeon Delve, decided that he really REALLY wanted to run the level 30 delve. I'm adept at running a four-man party by myself, having long since committed all of the lower-level powers from the Player's Handbook to memory.

I think that Adrian's desire was fueled by the challenge of seeing if I could actually man my own epic level party, coupled by the fact that I own a colossal red dragon that I never, ever used.

Now, the highest level legit character that I have is a level 8 longtooth shifter barbarian, so the logical step was to crank her up to 30. When that took a lot longer than I expected, I figured that to speed the process along that I would just have the Character Builder roll out some quick builds for me. In the end I supplemented my original character with a warforged fighter, eladrin wizard, and a half-elf cleric.

We managed to start the delve, and it went on for almost a round before I realized something: for some reason, the Character Builder decided that the fighter just had to have about a million multiclass feats. His basic attacks were only at +27 to hit, compared to everyone else having over +30. His Armor Class was on par with the barbarian, and he was totally prepared to supplement his melee skills with various cleric, warlock, and wizard powers, all at around +17 to hit. The feat selection was likewise a joke, picking Armor Specialization (hide) despite the fact that there was no hide armor on the sheet at all.

With that, we gave up on the notion of running the delve that night. It was past 11 and I wanted to maintain some kind of rough sleeping schedule. Maybe next time, when I have time to build my own functional characters.
February 25, 2009
Posted by David Guyll
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Dungeon Delve Review

First things first: assuming that someone at Rainy Day Games reads this, I did manage to get a copy of Dungeon Delve before March 3rd. So, ha ha and stuff.

Dungeon Delve is pretty straightforward: each delve is three encounters strung together, and you get one delve per character level (for a total of thirty).

The book opens up explaining the origins of the delve before moving on to various uses for the product: to fill in an encounter, to run a very short game, to give someone else a chance to run a short game, run it as a competitive game between the party and DM, expanding upon a delve, and a page of all the new monsters featured in the book. Well, not their blocks, but the pages you can find them on.

The delves themselves are likewise straightforward: you go from room to room, engaging in encounter after encounter until you are done. Each delve tells you which Dungone Tiles set you need to build it, but if you dont have any you can alwasy draw the map as usual. They're all thematic in the sense that one has lots of fire monsters, and another one has lots of orcs. If nothing else are a good excuse to use your Dungeon Tiles and various monsters that you havent been able to use before (especially if you havent gotten into paragon or epic tier).

There werent any particularly fantastic locations for any of the fights. They're all self-contained dungeon setups, regardless as to what you are taking on. I would have liked to see planar locations or something more dynamic used in the paragon and epic delves.

The real question is why you would get this book. Well, a delve is really just a grand total of three encounters. Thanks to the simplicity of encounter building, I think its safe to say that anyone that can read and perform basic addition can build an encounter of any level. All the monsters synergize well in a level group, so its hard to not make an encounter without lots of similar monsters. Want to actually play an epic level character? Have your players make one and then build your own sequence of encounters for level 30 characters.

I suppose that this book is ideal for newer players, or a player that has never run before (in any edition). The designer sidebars might be useful for some, and more monsters are always good. Casual groups will enjoy it becuase its well suited for short, casual play, while hardcore groups will like it just because you can run them as player vs. DM events. What it comes down to is whether the money is worth saving the time it would take you to do it yourself.

Posted by David Guyll
Tag :

Harley Stroh (Goodman Games) Interview

I recently asked Harley Stroh, line editor and developer for Goodman Games' Dungeon Crawl Classics as well as author of the Master Dungeons series to take a few minutes from his busy schedule and answer a few questions. -Red Jason

You just got back from D&D Experience, it was amazing I'm sure....

So what exactly did you do at the convention?

We ran previews of our upcoming adventures, shared our newest releases, and had a chance to meet gamers from around the world. We met folks from Australia, Canada, the UK and all across the United States ---- an amazing, diverse bunch. But mostly, we did what we do best: run exciting 4E adventures.

Goodman Games is pretty much in the thick of releasing a bunch of cool things with your name on it, you must be having a blast right now?

Absolutely. Having the chance to write for Goodman Games is a lifelong dream come true and with the new edition, the door has been cast open wide. There's a world to explore and we've only just brushed the surface.

The products we've released, and the products we have coming up in the next 7 months are really exciting, to both write and play. Ultimately, we (the Goodman Games writers) are gamers --- the products we release are the same adventures, settings and supplements we are hungry for in our own games.

So Mists of Madness looks quite enticing, can you give a little info about the plot?

I was doing research for my Age of Cthulhu adventure at the same time I was writing Mists so there is a fair bit of thematic overlap. The culmination of Mists isn't true to the Cthulhu-mythos, but the overlap will be obvious to anyone with a passing familiarity with Lovecraft and his peers.

Where did the initial idea for this come from?

A few years ago I picked up the phenomenal H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society's silent film: Call of Cthulhu. When I was working on Mists, I put the DVD on repeat and soaked in the atmosphere. From there, I mixed in a little nostalgia from Gygax's Tomb of Horrors and the rest wrote itself.

I really think that the $2 module is a brilliant piece of marketing, helping introduce the DC
C line to new players, in fact my first official experience behind the screen was running Jeff LaSala's $2 The Transmuter's Last Touch (3.5 edition) and I've been solely running Dungeon Crawl Classics for my gaming group ever since. What made you decide Mists of Madness was going to be the 4E $2 module?

Joseph Goodman calls the shots. He asked for a $2 adventure, and we jumped at the chance to write it. Mists was a natural fit --- shorter than many of the other adventures we are publishing, but long enough to for an intense few sessions. And of course, it is set in the swamps just outside Punjar, a city close to my heart.

Then we have Curse of the Kingspire, the second of your Mast
er Dungeons titles. For those that don't know, what is the Master Dungeons line all about and how is it different than the Dungeon Crawl Classics line?

The Master Dungeon line is all about high adventure, exotic locations, and epic deed done by great heroes (regardless of level). If the DCCs draw their inspiration from heroes like Gray Mouser and Fafhrd, the Master Dungeons look to Elric and Beowulf. Master Dungeons take place on a grander stage than the DCCs, with a broader, more sweeping scope. When you've finish a MD adventure, the world should be a changed place.

I picked up Dragora's Dungeon when it first came out and I totally agree with the EN World fan reviewer that said this would make a perfect sword and sorcery style Conan novel, you must have had a great time writing this one?

Absolutely. I've long believed that the key to writing a good adventure, true to the heart of D&D, is to go back to the source texts --- Howard, Moorcock, Tolkien, Leiber: the greats that laid the foundation for the worlds of fantasy we enjoy today. The first two MDs reflect my admiration and love Howard and Moorcock, respectively.

And speaking of 'sword and sorcery', soon we will be seeing the release of The Adventures of Frank Frazetta’s Death Dealer: Shadows of Mirahan. How were the seeds of this project sown? This module will be closely based on the comic book series of the same name produced by Image Comics won't it?

The chance to write Shadows of Mirahan was a dream come true, and like most of our good ideas, it came from Joseph Goodman. He and I are both big fans of Image's Frazetta line, and adapting the comics to D&D was a natural fit. I had a lot of fun living into the world created by Jay Fotos, Nat Jones and Joshua Ortega --- they did a phenomenal job bringing Frazetta's visions to life. But we also worked hard to capture the raw, visceral violence of Frazetta's Deather Dealer paintings, which meant coming up with some new rules that make 4E combat quick and brutal. Living up to Frank Frazetta's artwork is an impossibly high standard, but we did our best and I think we did it justice.

It must feel great to be so closely connected with such pulp fantasy history and be able to bring that into the new edition...

I've had a love of pulp fantasy that stretches back to my childhood. Right now, at my writing desk, Tolkien, Moorcock, and Lieber are within reach, along with an old Gord of Greyhawk novel and some Mike Mignola Hellboy collections. In many ways, the advent of 4E blew the doors open wide --- suddenly adventures and settings like Death Dealer and Punjar seem that much more vibrant, dangerous and real. For better or worse, we had all acquired a passing mastery of 3.5 --- there was very little that could instill true fear into a player any longer. But 4E wiped that slate clean, and suddenly we're in unknown territory again. Suddenly we're adventuring again. We don't know what's around that next mountain pass, or in the heart of that fetid swamp ... but with a good sword arm and a chain hauberk, we're willing to find out.

So do you have a 4th Edition home game going right now? If so tell me about it...

Home game, yes. Home campaign, no. I abuse my poor players by forcing them to playtest all our upcoming adventures. It's a good night when we have fewer than 2 TPKs. I've promised them the chance to play something that lasts more than 4 sessions, set in the slums of Punjar and they leaped at the chance. Of course, little did they know this is just another chance to playtest an upcoming product ...

February 23, 2009
Posted by David Guyll

Celtic Adventure Path

So, I've been kicking around a concept document for a celtic-themed adventure path for a couple months, now. Partly because Player's Handbook 2 is due next month, but mostly because I like the idea and it really hasnt been done before. Initally, I wanted to pitch this idea to Wizards of the Coast, but I dont think they are looking for entire adventure paths at this point in time.
I'm curious if anyone that reads this has any advice on what I should do or go with this. Red Jason thinks that lulu might be ideal, since its print-on-demand. If nothing else I am thinking of just wrapping it up in as neat a pdf file as I can and just hawking it for a buck or two per adventure.

Any other suggestions?
February 20, 2009
Posted by David Guyll

The two dollar module is back!

The two dollar module is back! This 4E-compatible module sends the heroes to an ancient cave occupied by cultists dedicated to the Mists of Madness. Defended by ancient death traps and weird arcane seals, the caves conceal an antediluvian vault, the resting place of an archlich whose reign predates recorded history in the Known Realms. Undisturbed for untold eons, now the machinations of the cultists and their eladrin master threaten to awaken the archlich, to dire ends that none can predict. From Goodman Games.

Check it out! Click here

My Half-Orc And Me

I like the new half-orc mechanically a lot, compared to the previous iteration(s) which ranked roughly at "not-at-all". The previous half-orc was the first time I'd seen it placed as an official, default race, but it never got any traction in my group because it was just a leg up on the half-elf in terms of sucktitude: the half-orc was technically better because there were builds that it was actually mechanically suited for, namely the barbarian.

I really dont care for the half-orc backstory, by which I mean I dont care what that backstory is. I've said it before: story is one of (if not the) easiest things to change. Even if Wizards of the Coast slapped rape on the half-orc page, you could easily change it. I'm sure that even if they dont mention that at all, there are going to be gaming groups that use that as a potential origin.

That all being said, the make-or-break deal really boils down to mechanics. If a race isnt mechanically interesting, I can often be coerced by the aesthetics. For example, the tiefling seems kind of ho-hum mechanically, but they look cool so I play them occasionally anyway.

Thanks to 4th Edition, the race has gotten a huge mechanical makeover. Since no races get ability score penalties anymore, you can kick the net -2 penalty out the door along with all the arguments on how to "fix" them and instead embrace their actually useful, functional racial features: they gain hit points when bloodied, and can deal bonus damage on any one attack once per encounter. Both traits evoke the feeling that you are playing a strong, tough half-breed race. I can imagine many classes that can benefit from this, but you can also take these features into the game narrative, which is important if you enjoy the social-roleplaying elements of the game.

As with many things 4th Edition makes me want to, for the first time, play a half-orc. Probably a half-orc dragon sorcerer.
February 19, 2009
Posted by David Guyll

The Forgotten Portal Playtest & Review

Whelp, last night we sat down to both play The Forgotten Portal and tryout a few of the preview classes from Player's Handbook 2. Red Jason can probably comment more about his experience as a bladeling invoker, so I'll try to adhere strictly to the adventure bits, starting with the bad.

There are several typos where silver is written as sliver, and some of the treasure seemed a bit much in the early parts of the adventure. I'm generally pretty flexible on the whole treasure parcel system, but by the time they walked out of the caves they'd amassed almost 1,400 gp and a pair of +2 items. In hindsight there were only four of them, but without any kind of parcel list its difficult to figure out just how much loot I should remove without going through the entire adventure and documenting every cent like some kind of achaeologist accountant.
To put things in perspective since I am such a rules whore, 1,400 gp is the equivalent of the item parcels 5, 6, 7, and almost 8 for a level 4 party (DMG, pg 126).

Back to the adventure, we managed to just get out of the cavern before stopping, which had us plow through three encounters involving a few solo bouts and an extremely dangerous level 10 elite. At level four.
Red Jason ran into a similar problem in Forges of the Mountain King where a level 1 party had to face off against a couple level 8 zombies, but its really a simple fix to downgrade them to more manageable challenges: I just sheared off a few points from each defense and reduced the hit points by a percentage. More importantly, I did this all on the fly once I noticed it.
To summarize, I would more carefully consider the placement and difficulty of elite and solo monsters. They are already harder to hit than a normal monster, and the ramped up hit points can turn things into a slog-fest as the players try to gradually whittle through ten tons of hit points.
One of the players took issue with the at-will charge that inflicts a save-ends stun condition. Most monsters of the heroic tier have it last for a turn, or after a failed save, but the ghoul can actually do a kind of setup on a stun with its bite. I think its certainly incredibly dangerous given the nature of the fight, and probably would have reduced it to stunned with a dazed aftereffect, myself.
Finally, I would have preferred that the map was displayed right before the actual encounters are setup (aka, delve-format), but I suppose that by sticking it on the back cover you wont have any difficulties locating it. Still, I like the delve format because it helps you figure out precisely where things are meant to go. To be clear, this is really more of a nit-picky issue.

On the flipside, there isnt a lot of setup to The Forgotten Portal within the actual book, but its very easy for a DM to drop this into an established campaign. I mean, if you have a jungle in there somewhere, you're good to go. I dont know all the workings of the world-as-written by Goodman Games, so we just picked a hook that everyone agreed on and I dropped them into the jungle right smack in front of the waterfall. This was fine because, hey, its just a playtest session.
After that its a mad trek through monster infested caverns before arriving at the village Teputzittoloc, after which point the party ventures into an ancient pyramid at the behest of the distraught villagers there. There's more to it than that, but I dont want to spoil the plot beyond what I just did. The adventure was an enjoyable read (very much like a Conan story) and also easy to run. Very pulp, if thats your sort of thing.

As a kind of "acid test", I didnt actually read much of it before hand just so I could see how hard it would be to run as a pickup sort of thing, and the ride was smooth almost the entire way. Granted, we only got through a few encounters, but I'm confident that if we continue it next week I wont need to study it before then.
All in all, Goodman Games does an excellent job of setting the stage and delivering as much solid adventure as they can. Red Jason was a bit put off by the initial price tag, but I think its safe to say that he certainly got what he paid for, even though we only got through about a quarter of the adventure. The first few encounters were fun and very easy to narrate. I like the aztec-theme of the adventure, which isnt something you see a whole lot. The names of monsters, NPCs, and what-have-you are very hard to pronounce (meaning that I basically cant), but it adds to the exotic flavor and makes for good times as the players try to do it themselves.

I like that the adventure has an implied time limit, in that if they can get there and back fast enough they can get a free ride out of the jungle. Not a lot of adventures have this kind of restriction, but its good because it helps usher the players forward and avoiding the one-encounter-a-day syndrome where they just take extended rests whenever they feel like because, well, they can. I think my group often underestimates their capabilities, and this helped them press forward even when they'd expended their action points and dailies.
Presumably if they for some reason fail, it'll be an arduous trek through wilderness and Skill Challenges before they can find civilization again. Its mostly an in-character reason, since in reality a Skill Challenge is just extra XP...
...and speaking of XP I want to shift back to the encounters for a bit to laud the author on the encounter with frogs, of all things. Very engaging and required a lot of thinking from the group, since they could blind characters on a hit, and were free to leap about the incredibly-hard-to-climb pillars, just out of Reach. My only nit-pick here is that since the venom blinds them on a hit, that it might have worked better as a secondary attack or recharge power. Otherwise, very fun encounter. For me, anyway.

I can really see how things have changed in since Sellswords of Punjar (the only other DCC that I read). First, the book is a lot thicker and felt more durable. The adventure seems to have more background and is easier to read through. They dont go into as much depth as Pathfinder, which is a very good thing, instead giving you what I consider to be the right amount of background that although only the DM gets to know, doesnt occupy the lion's share of the module. For a $16 adventure, I think its definitely worth the money.

2 Weeks Left for Open Call

Only two weeks left to submit ideas to Goodman Game's Book of Rituals open call. They have posted the book’s cover art to give further inspiration to aspiring game designers.
February 16, 2009
Posted by David Guyll

Dragon: Monster Design

Red Jason wanted to hear what I thought about the latest article on monster design, straight from the fingers of Mike Mearls and Chris Sims. If there's one thing that gets me rolling for hours its talking about games and game design, so of course I was all too happy to oblige.

As a veteran D&D gamer, I remember trying to build monsters since 2nd Edition, which really had no guidelines that I could recall. You kind of just did it and then...whatever. 3rd Edition went a long way in providing some kind of organization to the whole process, but I found it extremely difficult to build even basic monsters since you were basically building a somewhat simplified character. Sure, you can half-ass it and just write out some basic stats for the stuff you need, but if you wanted to do something official it can get pretty complicated (especially if you start adding classes to the mix).
Also, there were issues with trying to make monsters of certain types because to make them challenging for a given level you really had to rack up the Hit Dice, which caused other problems with stuff like save DCs for their attacks, feats, saving modifiers, and skill modifiers. The vermin type comes to mind, with its lowly base attack bonus.

4th Edition really streamlines the entire process while ensuring that your monsters are all balanced for their level. Its very easy to make a monster, even on the fly. Heck, the tables for damage and the page 42 table is on the back of the Dungeon Master's Screen. Paste a simple level formula for monster attack bonuses and defenses and you can go pretty far without cracking open the DMG. I threw a Large fire beetle at my group in Siege on Bordrin's Watch, which I threw in the encounter on a whim with no stat block handy at all.

The provies some basic yet useful advice, and most importantly explains the purposes of each monster role. You even get a few tips on elites/solos and healing powers (read: dont use them). Short and to the point, its a good read even if you've been kicking out monsters before 4th Edition was even released. These are the articles I like the most, as we get to see how things went from start to finish from the designer's point of view.
February 15, 2009
Posted by David Guyll
Tag :

Dragon: Secrets of the City Entombed

I almost missed this, stumbling upon it while browsing the Wizards forums while trying to avoid the constant salvo of crap and misconceptions being thrown about, which would have been a shame since its a very crunchy article and my wizard can almost use some stuff out of here...

Secrets of the City Entombed is an article made up of background and mechanics in about equal measure. It opens up with a description of the city Rahesh, a place where the dead walk and are probably smarter than the politicians. Unless they were politicians in life, that is. It quickly wraps up with a section on the Scholars of Sin, as well as some Arcana and History DCs to see how much you know about the place before quickly moving on to the good stuff.


The name of the theme is necromancy, and I know a lot of people were chomping at the bits for this. The last half of the article is devoted to providing new powers for the avenger, bard, cleric, shaman, swordmage, warlock, and wizard. Thats right, well before PH2 is even out we're already getting support for some of the new classes. More than a few of the powers have the Summoning keyword, which is explained in a very nifty sidebar.
Of particular interest is the animate dead spell, which weighs in as a level 9 daily that lets you raise any dead monster to kick ass on your behalf (and standard actions). While they share the same set of stats, its more of an aesthetics part that gives it that cool factor.

This is certainly one of the best articles released so far. It covers a wide range of classes with some solid powers that I think a lot of players are going to enjoy.
February 14, 2009
Posted by David Guyll
Tag :

Game Design Theory: Levels and Classes

An acquaintance of mine just asked me two questions: "Why have levels?" and "Why have classes?" This is interesting from both the designer's and player's standpoint, as the inclusion of either of these elements effects how you create and play the game.
I've played a lot of RPGs in my time aside from D&D: Rifts, GURPS, Shadowrun, Dragonball Z, Macross II, System Failure, Star Wars (WEG and d20), most stuff from White Wolf, and Elric! (the exclamation point is part of the title, I swear). Most of those didnt have classes or levels. Actually, I think out of all of them, Palladium products are the only ones that did. Shadowrun came close with archetypes, but those were mostly just pre-genned characters (kind of like D&D builds).

I personally find that a bad thing. For one, it requires much more reading about the game in order to actually get to the character creation stage. In Shadowrun, you will want to know what each attribute, skill, and bit of gear does before you get it, and it doesnt always do what you might think it does. Add to that the ability to specialize skills, toss in cybernetics, and even go so far as to use magic, and you're going to have a fair share of homework on your hands. If you consider Mage's very free-form magic system, well...thats another thing entirely.
I remember playing Shadowrun, making a street samurai that used two Smartlinked uzis, had wired reflexes, and then super high Quickness and Intelligence (for intiative, I think). To top it off, I maxed out and specialized in specifically the Uzi III. This lead to combats where I ended up having like, four actions, dealt horrendous amounts of damage, and was very difficult to hit. The other members of the group were a rigger and combat mage, so if the GM tried to make an encounter hard for me, it basically made it impossible for them. If he tried to make encounters where they had an easy time hitting me, he basically hit them every time (and did craptons of damage to boot).
This wasnt me being a dick and trying to make the most super-powered character I could. I was quite a bit younger at the time and just wanted to make sure that I could do stuff with the guns I took, and that bit of caution went a long way. When I went to make a new character, well, I wasnt sure what an "average" character was compared to the stuff we would normally fight. How much was too much? How much was good enough? What was the middle ground?

This all leads to a kind of system mastery-learning curve where you gradually learn more about a game as you create characters and play it. Some combinations work, some work okay, and some just plain suck. My experiences tended to extremes, so I was either not having a lot of fun due to a sucky character or boredon. In the end, "freeform" character creation system arent really that freefrom: eventually a few solid combinations float to the top of the soup while the rest settle at the bottom like so much sludge.
System mastery is a very bad thing. The longer a player has to learn and study to actually get to the fun part of the game, the less likely they are going to have fun, or even play it. Why go through all the motions of learning all the intricacies of Elric! when I can just crack open D&D, make a fighter (or frankly any class), and start rolling dice?

This is probably why I prefer D&D over other RPGs. Classes and levels help make it extremely easy for players to determine what they want to make, and allow them to make a functional character without a lot of trial and error. From the DM's perspective, levels make it extremely easy for me to determine the overall power level of my group. I can comfortably know that I am not going to overpower and possibly kill my group...unless thats my aim, of course.
The point is, its not hard for anyone to build characters or encounters anymore, and I think that the people who dislike levels and/or classes are the very people that enjoyed that system mastery and felt themselves empowered by their knowledge.
Well, too bad. Unless I end up falling into the Character Optimization forum, I dont feel like the choices I make are bad ones (because everything sucks). My players dont need someone else to explain to them what feats and powers are good or bad. They can play halfling tempest fighters with two daggers, and do well enough to feel like that their character is functional. They know what the middle ground is, and can plan accordingly.

I guess the short(er) answer is that classes make it easy for players to play the game, and levels make it easier for DMs to run the game.
February 12, 2009
Posted by David Guyll

Digital Insider 2/11/2009

According to latest Digital Insider column, the monk will be appearing in Player's Handbook 3, with a playtest article popping up sometime in May. I've never been a fan of the monk. Not because of the allegations that it "doesnt fit", but because mechanically it just sucked. Neat concept, bad mechanics.

I'm pleased that so far 4th Edition has introduced old classes that I either wasnt interested in (clerics and paladins) or thought sucked mechanically (rangers and bards) and turned them into something viable and functional. Now, I am interested in trying out a bard. Hell, the player in my group who played a bard for 12 levels and though it sucked wants to try one! Hopefully they will continue this track record with the monk.

Other than that, we're supposed to get a set of feats, backgrounds, and paragon paths themed around assassins in March, as well as new familiars in April.
February 11, 2009
Posted by David Guyll

Manual of the Planes Review

I've technically talked about MotP before, but that was mainly in response to a podcast review that Red Jason and myself thought was fairly lackluster. The topic came up a couple nights ago, so I figured I'd talk about it again and do the job proper.
Manual of the Planes is the big 4th Edition book on the planes, and weighing in at 159 pages it covers exploring the planes, devotes a chapter to each individual plane, has new monsters, and wraps up with a chapter for additional player options. I would consider this book almost entirely for a DM if it werent for the strange inclusion of paragon paths, but I'll get to that later, and by later I mean last.

The first chapter gets you started on the planes and how they can fit into your campaign. It goes into the types of planes, planar traits, portals, planar customization, rituals that can get you there, and my personal favorite: vehicles. Flying astral ships and spelljammers are listed, among other things. Not wanting to make things easy, there are more than a few planar hazards for DMs to throw at their players to spice things up a bit, and even Sigil gets a few pages alongside the Far Realm (yay) and Plane of Dreams (yawn).
All in all, this chapter serves as a good primer for how you might use them in your games, how to get your players there, and how to challenge them on the way.

One of the biggest changes to 4th Edition aside from giving the boot to half-orcs and gnomes are the planes. Unlike the cosmologies of yester-edition, the new layout is condensed yet functional. While the planes have been reduced to a whopping four (if you aren't counting the world), the design team at Wizards is geared towards making sure that the content both is useful and usable, and I feel like that despite having less than half the former amount I can get a lot more out of them than I could before.
Mainly I think its the lack of incredibly deadly environments. It used to be that many planes, especially the inner ones, were immediately deadly if you didnt have the proper protection. By protection I mean a basic spell that left you impervious to the plane's harmful nature, which is really just another way of providing a minimum level prerequisite on adventuring there, not that there was anything to do in most of them, which brings me to my next point.
Once you cast your arbitrary spell to let you completely ignore what made the plane dangerous in the first place, you probably wondered why you bothered. Many planes had little reason to exist aside from symmetry: each alignment called for its own plane, and each inner plane could combine into a para-elemental plane. Most of them were endless expanses of the same, or just minor variations of the Material Plane.

For example, The Elemental Plane of Fire was just a bunch of fire, and the Plane of Vacuum was predictably a plane of absolutely nothing. Even a lot of the outer planes were fairly mundane. Bytopia was a realm of industrious people that had a parallel world above itself, and the Outlands was your basic wilderness zone that had an impossibly high-but-not-really spire in the center. I guess it also stretched on forever, if thats any consolation.
Even the more exotic looking planes ended up being useless. Mechanus was an infinite expanse of gears with stuff built on them, but there wasnt really any need to actually go there since the hundreds of modrons maintained the place pretty well without any interference, even when the formians showed up in 3rd Edition.

Comparitively, the only planes that seem anything like the normal world are the Feywild and Shadowfell, though this makes sense considering that they are respectively light and dark echoes of the world.
The Elemental Chaos is situated beneath the world and is he kind of mess you would expect if you mashed all the old elemental planes together. Unlike the old elemental planes, there is plenty of stable space that you can walk around on without exploding. At least immediately. The Astral Sea is the other major player, existing as a kind of heavely realm above the world that you can sail across (preferrably in some kind of planar vessel) in search of godly realms so you can beat them up and take their stuff.

Aside from the utility, I also like the new setup because it actually feels more fantastic. It moves away with the assumption that underground there is a mantle and core, and that above the world is the cold vacuum of space. Its more inline with real-world mythologies in that if you went underground deep enough, you could feasible reach the Elemental Chaos. Reminds me of the part in God of War where you literally climb out of hell.

Now, I'm a big Planescape buff but I tended to avoid most of the planes and often just had the players do urban stuff in Sigil because the Great Wheel seemed fairly artificial and the planes I really wanted to use had to wait until my party was high enough level to cast the right spell to get in and adventure there. That delayed if not outright killed the stories I wanted to tell unless I allowed them to make characters of the necessary level to cast whatever immunity spells they needed.

That being said, if you really did like the Great Wheel you can easily use the old model and populate it with 4th Edition monsters and no one is going to stop you. There arent any complex mechanics behind planar traits beyond "this energy-type gets +1 to hit" and "that energy-type deals half-damage", so its not like you have to adapt any convoluted rules. Just map the planes how you want and go play. You dont even need this book to do it, aside from the extra paragon paths, monsters, and magic items.
If you do like the new cosmology, then you're in for a treat because this book does a very good job of covering the bases. Each plane gets their own 15 or so pages of fame, detailing how to get there, who lives there, important locations, and in some cases new crunch like the soul rot disease. The Astral Sea gets the lion's share of content at 26 pages, but then it goes into more extensive detail about numerous astral dominions bobbing about. You get a healthy mix of solid adventure ideas and rough concepts to work with, and for the first time in years I've been excited about planning planar adventures beyond using them merely as interesting-looking backdrops.

While the book is mostly DM oriented the inclusion of the paragon paths makes it just a little out of place. I dont think the book has any kind of "identity problem", but since DDI has been out for awhile it makes me wonder why they didnt just feature it on Dragon. My theory is that they wanted to include not only options in the form of paragon paths, but also additional rituals to get players there, and even some new thematic magic items. Think about it, how many people would bitch if they put the rituals in Dragon?
A LOT. They would complain that Wizards is "forcing" them to get a DDI account so they could get material that should have been in there all along, blah blah blah you know the routine.

Getting back to the actual paragon paths for a moment, I really like most of them, especially considering that when it came to specialized content in 3rd Edition it was almost universally useless if you werent adhering to the theme. You could take a planar prestige class, but couldnt really use it if you werent out planehopping. The paragon paths in this book that are pretty thematic (like the gatecrasher) work just fine even if you prefer to stay close to home.

The short of it is that I would get this book if you want to expand your campaign beyond the natural world and/or round out your selection of monsters, paragon paths, and/or magic items.

February 10, 2009
Posted by David Guyll
Tag :

Review: Dungeon Denizens

Following my recent habit of draining my bank account of money, I decided to pick up Blackdirge's Dungeon Denizens. The last book I got from Goodman Games was pretty good considering that I didnt really like dragonborn, and I had some time on my hands today between me putting off doing homework and rushing through it at the last possible moment. I'm a massive wanker for crunch and a book about monsters should basically be wall to wall mechanics.

Compared to the actual Monster Manual, the price tag seems a bit steep at $25 considering that its less than half the size, black and white, and excepting the cover, the art leaves (quite) a bit to be desired

Before I get to the actual content I want to talk about the art. I heard someone describe the art as "retro". To me retro is more often than not synonymous with "shitty". I didnt think it was good art back in the day, and my standards have only increased laterally with my age. Par for the course it runs the gamut of crap to tolerable. As with Hero's Handbook: Dragonborn I can sympathize that since this is probably a lower budget project that I shouldnt expect full-color works, but some of them are particularly crude (the klaklin comes to mind).
So, the art is all in all pretty ho-hum, but that only has an impact on the game if you suck at describing things and decide to destroy what reputation you might have by copping out and just showing the players the illustrations.

The book lays out monsters by origin and keyword, which is something that I was disappointed that Wizards didnt do. I like being able to have a thematic index for monsters, especially when I am running a thematic adventure. For example, I might want to have the characters go through the Feywild, and knowing at a glance what creatures have the fey origin would be pretty fucking handy.

Most of the book is occupied by monster stat blocks bordered by lots of text that serves to describe the creature as well as impart a bit of personality and history, and it more or less follows the format directly out of the Monster Manual. You get monster tactics, lore, and encounter groups clustered together for your convenience.
Some of the monsters, like the aphyss, seem like reskins muscling in on core territory. Some are classics like the barghest that didnt make the cut to 4th Edition, which is great if you dont want to wait. The downside is that you can expect Wizards to produce said classics in an official release, and it probably wont match up. That being said, most of the book has a lot of new stuff or at least expands upon existing creature categories: new beetles, new bats, and new golems. There are a few things that are completely different, like the floating polyp.

Dungeon Denizens is a pretty good book. I wouldnt say its completely worth the money unless you have somehow run through numerous level 1-30 campaigns and are in desperate need of new scenery, or just want to throw something completely ass-random at your jaded players so that they might actually experience some modicum of surprise.

Some of their powers come off as a bit overpowered/could use some work. For example, the coin golem's Arcane Resistance is a big red flag that basically tells wizards and warlocks to fuck off while the stick-wielding beaters handle the problem. I would have made it a recharging ability that lets them force a reroll or something simple, not just ramping up their defenses automatically against all arcane attacks (especially by 5-10 points, yikes!), but then I'm not writing game supplements.

February 04, 2009
Posted by David Guyll


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